Everton deepened Arsenal’s woes and put themselves in the box seat for the final Champions League place with a richly deserved 3-0 victory at a pulsating Goodison Park.
Having won just once in their last five games coming into the fixture to drop out of the title race, Arsenal are now locked in a desperate battle simply to maintain their place in the top four. Roberto Martinez had promised to bring the Champions League to the blue half of Merseyside when he took the job and with their sixth Premier League win a row they now control their destiny to do just that with six games remaining.
On the evidence of this latest showing, few would bet against them doing just that. Everton were superior to Arsenal in every way on Sunday, with Martinez outthinking his opposite number. Arsene Wenger shoed no variation on a formula that has now seen his side ship 20 goals in away trips to Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and now Everton. In contrast, Martinez displayed his impressive flexibility by playing Steven Naismith in a deep-lying forward role and having Kevin Mirallas, and particularly, Romelu Lukaku stay high on the flanks.
It was that alteration that brought both of Everton’s first-half goals. On each occasion Lukaku was found early on the right, with the first leading to a saved shot from which Naismith finished on the rebound and the second ending with Lukaku driving a venomous shot into the net. The pattern was all too familiar for Arsenal when Everton pounced on the break in the second half and under pressure Mikel Arteta put the ball into his own net to seal the three points for the hosts.
Threatening with the ball, Everton were compact without it, and a ponderous, one-dimensional Arsenal produced scant threat on the opposition goal throughout. Having appeared to have regained some belief in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City, Arsenal must now go back to the drawing board. With a much more favorable run-in than that of Everton, who are now just a point behind with a game in hand, Arsenal must still be favorites to get fourth, but an immediate reaction from what is arguably their most debilitating loss of the season will be crucial.
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From the off, Everton it was apparent that Everton were the side rising to the mammoth occasion. The hosts showed their threat in just the first two minutes when Leon Osman hit a superb dipping strike that Wojciech Szczesny could only watch as it went inches wide of the post.
It was to be Osman’s last meaningful contribution with the midfielder forced off with a nasty cut around his eye. Still the ability to call upon the talented Ross Barkley meant it was far from a devastating blow. Barkley slotted into Osman’s place on the left side of a midfield three that worked diligently close in front of their pushed up back four to deny Arsenal space in that crucial zone between the lines where their most talented players like to operate. While Martinez is renowned for his passing philosophy, he again demonstrated that he is far from an ideologue, an accusation that would be far more apt directed at the man against whom he so clearly won the battle of wits on Sunday.
Martinez was happy to concede possession to Arsenal, while keeping Mirallas and Lukaku high allowed them to strike quickly on the break and expose a weakness in transition that also cost their opponents dear at Anfield and Stamford Bridge recently.
And Martinez’s tactics worked superbly. The first goal came after Leighton Baines was allowed the freedom of the left side of the pitch to drift forward before firing in an early low cross that got Lukaku easily in behind Nacho Monreal. Szczesny did well to keep out the initial shot but the rebound fell to Naismith who finished coolly to put his side in front.
There was little from Arsenal by way of a response. Although the visitors had plenty of the ball, Everton’s compactness meant they struggled to get any support for the isolated Olivier Giroud. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain again surprisingly starting on the bench, there was a startling lack of pace and urgency about their play going forward.
In contrast, at the other end, Everton were repeatedly finding space among Arsenal’s defenders. Having already gone close when Mirallas’s shot was just turned wide at Szcesny’s near post, Everton doubled their lead in the 34th minute. Arteta, a passenger throughout against his former club, had cut out the first attempt to spring Lukaku down the right, but failed to gain control of the ball. At the second attempt Mirallas swung it out to the right for Lukaku who was left one-on-one with Monreal. The Belgian had no trouble getting past the full-back and then with equal ease cut inside past Thomas Vermaelen before driving a fierce left-footed beyond the dive of Szczesny.
The closest Arsenal came to getting a goal in the opening half was a mishit shot from Lukas Podolski that Tim Howard was forced to tip over. The Everton goalkeeper was forced into action early in the second-half too when Mirallas dallied on the ball in his own box and Giroud almost took advantage.
There was to be no fight back, however, and just past the hour mark Everton made the points safe. As so often for Arsenal of late, they conceded on the break. Mirallas robbed Bacary Sagna and surged forward straight onto the Arsenal back four before slipping in a pass to Naismith. Although Szczesny did well to get there first the ball came out into the center of the box where Arteta could only make a despairing lunge to stop Mirallas pouncing on it and took the ball into his own net.
It wasn’t until the game was gone that Wenger changed things from the bench. Aaron Ramsey made his return from injury, in what was the only positive to the day for Arsenal, while unsurprisingly Oxlade-Chamberlain, as last week, made a positive impact. It was the young England midfielder who finally injected some vitality into Arsenal’s attack and produced his side’s best moment with a fierce drive from distance that Howard brilliantly tipped onto the crossbar.
It was too little far too late from Arsenal and Wenger, who now face a crucial final six weeks of the season that could well decide whether their near-18-year relationship continues beyond this season.